The Westernization of Russia and the Intelligentsia
By Loon Goo


Profound changes took place during the 17th century in Russia that resulted in religious, cultural, political, and socioeconomic disarray. Efforts at reforming the church structure and modernizing the ritual resulted in the church turning into a closed estate, losing much of its moral authority, autonomy, and spiritual and cultural influence. (Columbia) The cultural gap between the elite and the people was deepened by numerous conflicts. Urban strife at times threatened the stability of the regime. With increasing trade contact with the English and the Dutch, foreigners came to Russia, and diplomatic exchanges grew more frequent as Russia became more involved in European military and diplomatic events. With the importation of Western technological innovations for military purposes, the incorporation of eastern Ukraine, foreign fashions and cultural goods came into Russia, and she inevitably experienced her first taste of Westernization, which led to changes of Muscovite tastes in architecture, church music and poetry. (Grolier) The way was paved for the forceful Europeanization that followed under the rule of Peter I.


Peter I, also known as Peter the Great, was the tsar of Russia (r.1682-1725) and the first Russian emperor (from 1721). He was an unusually powerful and prepossessing ruler: his struggle with Sweden in the Great Northern War, wars with Ottoman Turkey and Persia, and his acquisition of the Baltic province of Livonia, including Estonia and most of Latvia, drastically changed Russia's international position and marked a direct relationship with Western Europe. (Putnam) These territorial gains forced Peter to transform the institutional framework of the state and restructure the society. It was his military achievements and westernizing reforms of the Russian government, army, and society that laid the foundation of the modern Russian state. (Grolier) Two important social phenomena arose.


One of the consequences was a great negative effect on the peasants, who became the most downtrodden and oppressed group of society. Under Peter's rule, the peasantry became subjected to compulsory labor (as in the building of the new capital, Saint Petersburgh, which began in 1703), and to military service, and every individual adult male peasant was assessed with a head, or poll, tax. By these measures, the state severed the last legal ties of the peasants to the land and transformed them into peasant serfs, virtually objects, who could be moved and sold at will. (Presniakov, Grolier) The process by which the traditional peasant bondsman (attached to the land) was changed into a serf (attached to an owner) was completed, and the huge rural masses became, in effect, merely human chattel. This development not only meant economic, legal, and physical degradation of the large majority of the Russian people, but it also carried in its wake serious spiritual consequences. The peasant was threatened with becoming dehumanized and transformed into an object. The pattern of communal relationships in the family or village was undermined and threatened with extinction. The peasant found himself cast adrift, isolated, at the mercy of landlords and government institutions whose motives he could not understand, whose behavior he feared, and whose language he had ceased to speak. His alienation from the prevailing institutional pattern and from the culture of the upper classes was complete. (Brower)


At the other end of the social scale, the nobility and state servants (that is, the educated), were forced into compulsory, lifelong service to the state. Their status depended on ranks earned in military or administrative office. (Kemp)


In order to mold the educated into service for the state, Peter also introduced a system of compulsory secular, Westernized schooling for the noblemen, and so they were forced into an education focused on the acquisition of the knowledge and culture of contemporary western Europe. (Grolier) The establishment of new educational institutions, such as the Academy of Sciences in 1725, the University of Moscow in 1755, and military and private schools, sped up the process. (Grolier) By the mid-18th century, therefore, the educated Russian was inculcated with a set of values very different from those of his forbears. This cultural westernization of the Russian elites, which eventually gave rise to the intelligentsia, was a very important process that shaped 18th-century Russia.


A new kind of educated man emerged, one who was proud of his achievement in acquiring a western culture, and conscious of his dignity as an enlightened individual. Increased sophistication heightened his yearnings for free expression and implementation of enlightened Western moral and social values, and he became resentful of the controls over his life and thoughts to which a narrow-minded bureaucracy and rigid autocracy subjected him. (Grolier) This led to a conflict between state control and educated society's demand for creative freedom. At the same time, this enlightened and sensitive individual was becoming increasingly conscious of his being cut off from the ways and thought of the common people, whose culture had not shared the westernization that Peter imposed on the upper classes. This awareness, along with his newly acquired western ideals of humanity and social justice, made him want to be useful to his fellow men and to help them overcome what he regarded as being their cultural alienation. (Brower) Therefore, the more progressive and enlightened members of the upper class set themselves off from their serf-owning brethren and formed a separate social group which soon became virtually a class of its own: the Russian Intelligentsia.


A modern national literature was created along Western lines, and scientific research and discoveries began. In the forefront of the creation of modern Russian civilization, the intelligentsia found its highest expression in the literature of the 1820s and 1830s and set the tone and ideals for all educated Russians in the reign of Nicholas I and thereafter. (Pares) It was during his reign when the golden age of Russian literature came to being, with the works of Nikolai Gogol, Aleksandr Pushkin, and other prominent writers. (Grolier) Discussion circles sprang up in Moscow and Saint Petersburgh in which the intelligentsia debated Russia's identity, its historical path and role, and its relationship to western Europe. (Brower) As such, it completely cut itself off from the establishment and broke with the state and the existing social system. Unable to find a meaningful active role in Russian society, persecuted by the government and constricted by censorship (Pares), the members of the intelligentsia were finally driven into revolutionary action.


On the other hand, deep hatred and helpless anger were accumulating in the minds of the peasants. Contained as long as the nobles interfered little in the peasant routine, they threatened explosion at the least provocation. There was an increasing number of revolts directed at the nobility rather than the state, the most serious of all being the war led by E. Pugachev in the region of the middle Volga and the Urals in 1773 to 1775. (Pares) The incidence of peasant unrest grew more and more violent, and it reached an almost endemic character in the first half of the nineteenth century. The savagery of the peasants' upsurge sowed panic and deep fear in the ranks of the nobility and of the government, who had not forgotten the bloody suppression of Pugachev's revolt. Among the more enlightened members of the educated classes, particularly the intelligentsia, the uprisings aroused compassion and indignation at the condition of the peasantry. It had become obvious that serfdom as it existed, in destroying the humanity of the peasant, threatened the moral integrity of the elite as well. (Pares) This was exemplified in Aleksandr Radishchev's landmark book in 1790, A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow. (Pares, 273)


The development of this situation helped explain why public life in nineteenth-century Russia was dominated, first by members of the gentry, and then by the intelligentsia that sprang from it. (Pares) The aristocratic and clerical origins of the intelligentsia left a decisive imprint upon its ideas --- and it was these ideas, rather than any precise occupational function, that served to distinguish the intelligentsia from other social groups. (Kemp) It comprised those who, having received a modern education, felt alienated from the existing political and social order. They might earn their living as professional men, zemstvo employees, or even civil servants and landowners; indeed, the figure of the "repentant nobleman" stands at the cradle of Russian intellectual history. (Pares)


The ideologies propounded by the Russian intelligentsia tended to be socially radical, democratic, and cosmopolitan, although they might have a concealed elitist, authoritarian, or nationalist streak. (Presniakov) These theories, derived from the advanced thought of contemporary Europe, often bore little relevance to the immediate problems confronting Russian society, but this seldom detracted from their appeal. Intellectuals were acknowledged to be their mentors by nearly all educated Russians, that is, by everyone not closely identified with the autocratic regime. (Pares) Their leadership was in normal times implicit, but in periods of crisis (1877-81, 1902-7), it became overt and decisive. (Pares)


Russian socialism was therefore a product of the intelligentsia --- for the most part idealistic men and women who were profoundly shocked by the backward, impoverished state of the Russian people and believed that radical improvements could come about only by violent revolution. (Pares) It was characteristic that they should hate oppression and love equality and liberty, and so their striving for the total regeneration of society came to be regarded as a hallmark of Russian radicalism. (Pares) They were contemptuous of "bourgeois liberalism" and the values it was believed to embody (formalism, legalism, gradualism), thus they took a moralistic approach to politics. (Brower) This led to acts of great courage and heroic self-sacrifice, but also to dogmatism, self-righteousness, intolerance of criticism, and the subordination of all ideas and actions to the single test of their political expediency. (Brower) This attitude was the seedbed of modern totalitarianism. (Brower)


These less attractive features of the radical intellectuals were aggravated by the difficulties that confronted those who sought to struggle actively against the autocratic regime. Obliged to operate underground, they had to adopt the methods and outlook of conspirators. (Pares) They were subject to immense psychological strain: extravagant hopes mingled with deep uncertainties; they were the vanguard of the narod (people), yet were denied the means to test or demonstrate their claims. (Brower, Pares) In normal times authority seemed omnipotent and all-pervasive; it was extremely difficult to maintain a clandestine organization, let alone spread subversive ideas among the population at large. Only when the state's power was weakened, by external wars and internal dissension, did opportunities arise to win mass support. (Pares)


Radical circles appeared among students in Moscow and Khar'kov as early as 1855-6, but they first became significant in 1861 (ending of Alexander II's reign), the year the serfs were set free, when the defects of the peasant reform aroused widespread indignation. (Pares, 366) The modern Russian Intelligentsia surfaced at this time. Protest leaflets were distributed and disturbances broke out at several universities. N.A. Serno-Solov'yevich founded an organization that claimed to embrace adherents in several cities, but it was soon broken up by the police (July 1862). (Pares) The suppression of the leading radical journal, Sovremennik ("The Contemporary"), whose widely respected editor, N.G.Chernyshevsky, was exiled to Siberia, temporarily caused the movement to lose its way. Some members, among them the student D.V.Karakozov (who in April 1866 made a vain attempt on the tsar's life), took to individual terrorism (Pares, 367); others were attracted to the utilitarian doctrines of D.I.Pisarev's nihilism (Pares, 366); many more succumbed to the appeal of the revolutionary anarchism taught by M.A.Bakunin. (Pares)


Another voice was that of P.L.Lavrov, who took a more ethical stand. (Pares) His followers began to form discussion circles that soon attempted to spread the socialist gospel more widely. In 1874-5 some two thousand young radicals "went to the people", but with disappointing results: they found the peasants largely indifferent to their message, and several hundred propagandists were arrested. (Pares, Brower) The narodniki (Populists), as they came to be called, learned their lesson and adopted more sophisticated tactics, setting up small groups of resident agents and founding a new potentially national organization in 1876, which took the name Zemlya i Volya ("Land and Liberty"). Its leaders, notably A.D.Mikhailov, were skilled conspirators and insisted on the need for discipline, but they soon quarreled over questions of tactics. The more experienced and reflective Populists emphasized the need for steady propaganda work (particularly among factory workers, who were more responsive to socialist teaching), and for collaboration with liberal "society" for constitutional ends. (Pares) The zealots, however, wanted to bring about immediate reforms, and even revolution, by terrorist methods. In 1879, this group prevailed and set up a new clandestine organization, Narodnaya Volya ("The People's Will"), which concentrated its energies on attempts to assassinate prominent officials, and ultimately the tsar himself. (Presniakov, Pares) Its dramatic coup of March 1st, 1881, was a technical success but neither ensued in a constitution nor a revolution, and the surviving terrorists, lacking any significant popular support, were easily mopped up by Alexander III's police. (Pares)


During the reign of the last tsar, Nicholas II, new political activity contributed to another upsurge of artistic and intellectual creativity that led to Russia's Silver Age. (Grolier) This marked Russia's coming of age as a contributing participant in Western culture. The high level of professionalization attained by its scholars, artists, and scientists, the take-off in science and scholarship in the universities and in the Academy of Sciences, the recognition of prominent Russian scientists such as N.I. Lobachevsky, occurred in this era. (Grolier) It was universally recognized that the intelligentsia had contributed significantly to chemistry, aeronautics, linguistics, history, archaeology, and statistics. (Grolier) The arts flourished, bringing to stage composer Igor Stravinsky, ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and painter Wassily Kandinsky, who influenced and contributed to the emergence of avant-garde modernism and abstract art. (Grolier) This feverish intellectual creativity, set against a background of social unrest, industrial discontentment, and revolutionary agitation, was a sign that the imperial regime was coming to an end.


Before the First World War the intelligentsia's dominance began to wane, and they were discriminated against in the early days of the revolution and during the Stalinist period. However, during later communism, they were worshipped --- it was partly because of the intelligentsia, in the form of people like Shcharansky, Sakharov (Nobel laureate), Solzhenitsyn (Nobel laureate), and Pasternak (Nobel laureate), that paved the way for the free thought that finally toppled communism.



  • Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 1926, third edition revised.

  • Kemp, W.A. Stalin and the Literary Intelligentsia. Saint Martin, 1991.

  • Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press, copyright 1994.

  • The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Interactive Inc, copyright.

  • Putnam, Peter B. Peter, the Revolutionary Tsar. Copyright 1973.

  • Presniakov, A.E. The Formation of the Great Russian State. Translated by Moorhouse, A.E., reprint of 1970 edition.

  • Brower, D.R. The Problem of the Russian Intelligentsia. Copyright 1967.



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